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Indian colleges step up efforts in drone studies, amid skill shortage

Indian colleges step up efforts in drone studies, amid skill shortage
16 Mar, 2022
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Liberalised rules from the government and increasing interest from private firms is set to increase the need for talent in the drone sector, and educational institutes in India are now stepping up offerings too. While students in India’s technical colleges have been interested in drones for years, most universities and colleges didn’t offer specialised courses for drone studies so far.

That is starting to change.

NIT Andhra Pradesh, for instance, is set to become one of the first engineering institutes in India to offer a minor degree on drone studies in the coming months, according to V. Sandeep, assistant professor and head of the institute’s electrical engineering department. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, is also offering drone-related activities and courses. 

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“In terms of education, we’re soon starting courses for training of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers and Assam state officials on the usage of drones, and a drone pilot training programme for them as well,” said Parameswar K. Iyer, dean of public relations at IIT Guwahati.

In August 2021, the Indian government liberalised the country’s regulations for the usage of drones to present the new Drone Rules, 2021 – bringing private startups and institutions into the fold. The move boosted interest in a sector that, for long, had remained restricted by regulations.

The government also introduced a Rs 120 crore production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to boost drone manufacturing in India in September 2021. In February 2022, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman underlined a consolidated cross-industry effort in the drone sector, dubbed Drone Shakti. Under the latter, the government sought to consolidate manufacturers, drone application providers, pilots and the entire ecosystem to organise the sector.

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According to data from staffing firm TeamLease Digital, the drone industry has a potential to create close to 100,000 jobs, directly or indirectly, over the next five to seven years. As many as 750-900 jobs are listed every month, Gautam Vohra, vice-president and business head of TeamLease told Mint last month. The industry is facing an acute shortage of drone pilots as well.

With this significant push coming in from the government and industry, educational institutes are offering more drone-based student activities to help them take up jobs related to this field after graduating, and to boost the number of drone pilots in the country.

NIT Andhra Pradesh’s Sandeep said that the institute’s first drone workshop, organised on 5 March, was a “level one approach” to introducing engineering students to drone technologies and pilot training. The workshop was executed in a cross-industry approach with the Technology Innovation Hub on Autonomous Navigation (Tihan), an innovation hub funded by the government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) at IIT Hyderabad.

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“The next-level workshop will include the students coming up with applications for drones – such as in defence, agriculture and so on. Many have even taken up drone projects as part of their final year project. One of them in the electrical engineering department is working on the use of drones in rescue operations and emergency disaster management, as part of the final graduation project,” Sandeep said.

Amit Shukla, assistant professor of robotics and drones at IIT Mandi, is gathering post-graduate and research students at the institute under its own drone laboratory. “Here, we’re working with students on designing indigenous drone technologies for industrial inspection and aerial manipulation,” he said.

The work done by students at IIT Mandi under Shukla has drawn industrial attention too. The Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) has expressed interest in utilising the locally developed drone technologies in inspection of its oil and gas pipelines, Shukla said.

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NIT Andhra Pradesh’s ‘minor’ course acts as an additional certificate alongside the main course, which includes B.Tech degrees in any discipline. The strategy is in line with the institute’s push to offer educational courses in new technology areas, which Sandeep said is already being done in fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, electric vehicles and 3D printing, among others. The next in line are drones.

“Our minor degrees will all focus on interdisciplinary studies, and drones are an ideal example of an interdisciplinary field. We’re also exploring industry tie-ups to help establish a centre for such innovation,” he added. The institute has also floated proposals to raise funding for a drone centre, and Sandeep said he expects this centre to become operational by the end of 2022.

At IIT Guwahati, Iyer said that its drone pilot courses are being certified by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) itself. In November 2021, the institute opened India’s first Centre of Excellence in research of drone technology, supported by MoCA. However, while this has boosted interest in drone studies among students, Iyer said that there is no imminent plan to introduce drones into the formal academic fold.

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IIT Mandi, however, has a different view. Shukla said that the institute is looking to introduce a standalone engineering course on robotics, which would see students dedicatedly study drone technologies and related topics – instead of specialising in drones alongside their main, conventional engineering course.

Beyond the IITs and NITs, smaller colleges too are entering the drone arena, according to Karan Kamdar, chief executive of Indian Drone Racing League. While the latter largely remains a crowd-puller event at college festivals, Kamdar said that it is having an impact on students being interested in drones beyond just a sport or hobby.

“We’re also seeing faculties getting interested. Colleges that do not have large funding or sponsors for events are also eager to see drone activities being organised on their premises. For instance, our latest drone racing event was at Father C. Rodriguez Institute of Technology in Navi Mumbai, which was a great success,” Kamdar added.

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